Of all the types of music out there, I most adore Film Score (soundtrack). Here is my list of 10 favorites, not from least to most because my life would have been hollow without any of them.
For the Love of a Princess, Braveheart (1995).This is music of magic and imagination at its finest. It starts slow and builds to a crescendo that, for me, invokes images of my heroine riding bareback on a horse at full charge along a shore at sunset.
“Progeny,” “The Wheat” and “The Battle”, Gladiator(2000) When I’m on a long trip, I listen to this and envision a battle between griffon-riders and dragons, ending with the great red dragon getting a lance in the chest and crashing into a lake, where a sleeping fisherman wakes from being soaked to find a dead dragon on the end of his line and the best fishing story anyone has ever told!
Daybreak in Space, The Right Stuff (1983) This one is simple; flying through space, just like the film. I don’t always need to come up with my own stories for these scores, especially when the movie did it better than my imagination ever could.
Adiemus by Enya. Not a film score (that I know of) but soooo good. Here I see riding a magical sailing yacht that can fly!
Just about everything by John Williams, but especially “Yoda’s Theme.” Why? When I was 12 and “between homes” with my mother, we were staying in a motel. One morning, I went outside with my small cassette player (this was 1980, before Walkmans) . The forest next to our motel was alongside a river. Fog had crept up and flooded the trees. I hid the player on the ground and played “Yoda’s Theme.” It was a sad, desperate time and that escape into fantasy made it bearable.
Ludovico Einaudi – Nuvole Bianche. Again, not a film score, but I cannot understate the impact this has had on me. When Shadyia perfectly repeats the music Aaron plays on his “gruziencord”, this is what she is playing. Find it, listen to it!
This is my hands down favorite on this list. “Wifing (The Love Theme)” by Basil Poledouris, Conan the Barbarian (1982). That might surprise you, but I am not exaggerating when I say I’ve listened to this over ten thousand times and I can listen to it even more.I see a dance between a Dark Elf and a Human magician. At first, she says, “I do not dance” but little by little his moves and the adoration for her in his eyes coxes her until she takes the lead. I end this scene in my head, which I have never written, with “Beneath the dark elf who hated the sun, beneath the necromancer that delved into forbidden magic, there was a woman. And women love to dance.”
There is so much more, but I hope you will experience these pieces as I have.
Imagine you are strolling past a graveyard at midnight. The moon is full. Fog is rolling in from a dark forest nearby. Vincent Price’s poem from “Thriller” is playing in your head—and sure enough, zombies rip from their graves and begin to chase you. Scary stuff, right?
Now imagine you have a next door neighbor. He’s a geeky kid named Rodger. He likes to say “yes” by replying “Rodger Wilko!” He speaks Klingon and loves playing “World of Warcraft” (who doesn’t?) One day, he is crossing the street, looking down at his phone, when—splat—he is struck by a van. Tragic. You say a few words at his closed coffin wake, and go to his funeral. The coffin is lowered into the ground. His few friends and an uncle wander off. A sad day. You then go home, open the door—and Rodger is sitting on your couch. Just sitting there, looking at you.
Which of these two scenarios is more terrifying? The zombies, right? They were dead people come to life! They chased you down the road and want to eat your brains! But did reading about the zombies give you as much of a shiver as coming home and finding Rodger on your couch? Probably not. Why is that? Rodger wasn’t chasing you. He doesn’t want to eat your brains. There’s only one of him. So why would finding “Rodger Wilko” on your couch make you plunge though the wall, leaving behind a cookie-cutter hole the shape of you?
The Unknown is Scary
There is no more powerful force for terrifying a reader than their own imagination. Fear of the unknown or what “might happen” keeps our doors locked at night and drives our political viewpoint. “Fear and wonder; a powerful combination.”
In my misspent youth, I read Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” Terrifying book about a cat that is brought back to life from an ancient cemetery in the woods. OK, that doesn’t sound scary—until the man who put his cat in the ground decides later to put his infant son there. But “what you burry in the cemetery is not what comes back.” As the man is carrying his dead son to the place he was shown, there is—something—in the woods. King never tells you what it is. You never see it. That, folks, is a genius at work. Your imagination is firing on eight cylinders, trying to picture what that is. As terrifying as a grief-stricken father bringing his dead boy coming back to life was—and that was really scary!—it was nothing compared to the unknown thing in the woods.
This can be extended into other areas. Remember the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction”? What was in there? Never being told was far more powerful than Vincent Vega turning the open case so you can see diamonds or Marsellus Wallace’s soul, or something.
In my World
At the end of “Beneath the Silver Rose” I had a dear character raped and tortured. When I first wrote that scene, I gave a blow-by-blow description. I wanted you, dear reader, to feel what the character felt. If you got sick and ran to the toilet to vomit, my job was done. But…in the end, I took that out. Oh, the character still gets tortured, but you are not there to read about it. Was I showing you mercy? No. I wrote about the aftereffects. The fact that the character was unrecognizable by her friends. That when Aaron touched the mind of the character to find out what had happened, he was thrown to the ground in agony. I allowed your imagination to conjure up images instead of telling you everything—and the result was far more disturbing.
The more you describe the demon, the less frightening it becomes. Remember that! When you allow your reader to imagine, the book becomes part of them. That is how you write a great story.
Probably not. Neither would I. We still have to look at ourselves in the mirror. Would you put a bomb on a plane that killed a terrorist determined to murder hundreds of thousands of people, even if his wife and daughter were on that plane? Probably, yes. And you’d tell your reflection, “It had to be done.”. There are as many definitions for evil as there are for coffee.
Today I wish to share with you my favorite: Machiavellian evil. Devious, wicked, calculated acts performed by someone who thinks they are acting for the greater good. Anyone can kill for revenge, or just because they love causing death and destruction.Evil for power and wealth is the oldest story in the book. As bad as all this is, it pales in comparison to Machiavellian evil. Why? Because as good people (I hope) we can adjust our halos and say, “I would never do that.” But when a character in a book does Machiavellian evil, we the reader cannot honestly say we wouldn’t do the same, and that is terrifying.
It doesn’t have to be simple numbers (the few hundred on that plane vs. the hundreds of thousands dying to a nuclear bomb or an engineered virus.) That actually lets us off the hook. But what if the act of Machiavellian evil were in support of a cause such as Democracy or religion? Would you kill a man who has absolute, irrefutable proof that Jesus was never crucified? Think of the chaos that would cause around the world. Now we get back into the “I would never do that!…Would I?” area.
Let’s take an example from American History
Between 1830 and 1850, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee people were forced from their homes to walk west of the Mississippi, even after the US Supreme Court sided in favor of their right to remain on their land. Thousands of them died in the journey. This is a f*cking evil act, folks. A wizard puts you in President Andrew Jackson’s shoes at that time. You know why this has happened. Some asshole white settler found gold on “Indian” land, and all the sudden, these people were a threat that had to be removed. You don’t hate Native Americans and you believe in the rule of law. So, what do you do? Easy. You enforce the Supreme Court’s ruling, say the native people can stay, and pose for your picture on the $20 bill.
Until someone tells you that if the native people stay, the white settlers will kill them, and I am talking slaughter. Women and children, in their beds, waking to a white man with an ax and a sheet over his head. Whites will not live peacefully alongside “Indians,” not when there’s gold and good farmland to gain. When the blood starts to soak the ground, when each act of violence provokes retaliation, you—as president—will have a choice. Send in the army and kill Americans and probably start a revolution that spirals out of control, or push the problem further west. It’s evil, but it has to be done. The ends justify the means. Machiavellian Evil.
When you write your evil character, strive for this level of complexity. Force your reader to look themselves in the mirror and ask if they would do any different. Anyone can kill and destroy for the fun of it. Killing for a just cause is far more devastating.
When I first laid eyes on this, I had no idea what story this painting was telling. A woman working at the museum took me though it step-by-step until the terrible truth was revealed. She could have said, “Oh, this is about…” and put it all out there like dousing me with a bucket of water, but she allowed me to understand at my own pace—and thus the impact was far greater. For that, I am ever grateful.
I will ask you some questions about this painting. I wish I could hear your answers, but the best I can do is assume them, based on the many times I’ve used this painting in my classes.
How would you describe the mood? Gloomy. Serious.
What do you see? Three men. Two are standing. One is dressed well. One poorly (no shoes). The man behind the table is a businessman. None of the men are looking at one another.
What time period would you put this at? Why? Mid-nineteenth century. The clothing. The furniture. There are coins on the table and not paper money.
What do you think is happening here? A business transaction in the home of the man sitting (he is too casually dressed to be anywhere else.) The man behind the table is obviously not a guest—he is still wearing his hat—and he is doing the buying, as the money is close to him.
What is on the floor in front of the man who is sitting? I’m not sure. Looks like he tore up several pieces of paper. I don’t know why.
Why does the man sitting not look happy? I can’t say for sure. But he is unwilling or unable to look at the two other men.
Let me provide some information. The time period is before 1850 in the USA. The pieces of paper are offers written on scrapes that man with the hat is giving the sitting man. They don’t want the man with no shoes to hear their negotiations, so they write them down. The man sitting doesn’t like any of the offers, so he tosses the scrapes of paper to the floor. Also, the man with no shoes is a slave. Does that last thing strike you as strange? Yes. The man with no shoes is white. The USA used black people as slaves.
Take this magnifying glass. Use it to enlarge the eyes on the man sitting, and then on the man with no shoes. What do you see? The eyes are the same. Oh my God…
Do you understand now? Yes. The man with no shoes is the sitting man’s son. He is selling his own son to the man with the hat.
Well, at lease he isn’t happy about it. Yeah, there’s that.
I love this art because there is nothing in it that doesn’t belong to tell the story. Not the painting on the wall, not the pattern and color of the tablecloth, and not even the single scrap of paper near the slave’s foot. It all has a purpose.
How about Writing?
In Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing a story, the first rule is:
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
When you describe anything, do it to establish mood and tell your story. Put nothing in there that doesn’t belong. If there is a sock on the floor, that sock better have a purpose. If a cat is sitting on the bed, that cat had better be there for a reason. Why? Because you can’t describe every winkle in the wallpaper and every spot of rust on the pipes, so why are you drawing my attention to this cat?
Please look again at The Price of Blood. What if you saw a cat on the table? You would likely be “Why the **** is there a cat on the table? It has no place there.”
If you put dark clouds in the sky, some bad shit should be about to happen. If your protagonist walks past a stranger who is leaning on a wall, that better be damn important, beyond even to establish atmosphere. Art imitates reality, but it is not reality. You and I could walk past a stranger leaning on a wall and think nothing of it. But to write about that, and then do nothing with it, is unforgivable.
Imagine reading a story with this as the first line:
Janet woke to the blast of a single gunshot outside her window.
Now, that is a hell of an opening hook! You are instantly curious.
You go on to read the story, and it’s one of the best you have ever read! Maybe Janet is a public defender in New York who kills rapist with a pair of pliers and a blow torch. Or maybe Janet is the first human to set foot on Mars. Or maybe Janet is pulled into a magical world and must protect the gentle Kemni from the savage Dreadoccs of Bloodvine forest. Whatever.
But if you get to the end of the book and never learn who shot off that gun, you would feel cheated. You and I could wake to the blast of a single gunshot. What was that! We look out the window. Nothing there. Maybe a car backfired, but does that even happen in 2017? You ask your neighbors. Yes, they heard it too. No, they have no idea what it was. You go the rest of the week, the rest of the year, the rest of your life and never learn who fired that gun and why. No biggie. Real life is often a series of unrelated events.
But in writing, it’s unforgivable to never tell your reader who shot that gun and why, even if the rest of the story is awesome. Art imitates reality.
To quote another of Vonnegut’s rules:
Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
Go through your manuscript. Put on a pair of dark “Terminator” sunglasses and kill anything that doesn’t tell your story. Never put a cat on a table unless there is a damn good reason for it to be there. If you have, you will leave your reader confused and cheated.
Imagine for a moment you are listening to a really interesting story. In fact, let’s be specific. You are listening to Rob Roy MacGregor tell his story. After years of dealing with the Marquess of Montrose, “Robert the Red” borrows 1000 pounds, which goes missing. When his lands are seized by the authorities, his wife and children evicted, and his house burned, Rob Roy leads a rebellion against the Scottish nobles that ends in his surrender.
The is one of those rare times in history where what happens actually makes a great story, one that has inspired plays, songs, and two movies (one with Liam Neeson as Rob Roy—how cool is that!) There are a lot of great characters in this story: Rob Roy himself, his wife, the chief herder who might have stolen the money, James Graham, 1st Duke of Montrose, and the men who fought for either side.
On the surface, this story seems ideal for a First Person Narrative. “I am Rob Roy MacGregor, and this is what happened to me.” First Person is also easy on the writer. No need to sweat all that Deep POV stuff; it doesn’t get any deeper than First Person! Only one character voice to keep in mind.
Then why not First Person writing?
But Dear God, do you lose so much! You get none of the anger from James Graham at Roy’s “theft” and uprising. You get none of the helplessness of Roy’s wife watching her home burn and their livelihood taken. The 1995 film with Liam Neeson had a fictional character that stands as one of the top five greatest villains I have ever seen, Archibald Cunningham masterfully portrayed by Tim Roth. When Archibald’s young mistress tells him she is pregnant by him, he replies “Well, he won’t be the first bastard born in Scotland.”
If the events of that 1995 film were made into a book that was written in First Person, we would never have that scene, unless Rob Roy was in the room hiding behind a curtain when it happened. Some authors attempt to escape this limitation by writing a First Person book from several persons. That’s even worse! Why? Because readers are trained to hear all First Person narratives in the same voice — their voice. Conan saying “I then split his head to the teeth with my sword” sounds exactly like Albert Einstein saying, “And that’s when I discovered the theory of relativity” because it’s your voice in your head saying those words! But when you read, in the Third person:
Conan broke the spells, snatched his sword from the throne, and split the dark wizard’s skull to the teeth.
That’s not Conan telling the story. That’s the narrator’s words in your voice. Add a little brain splatter, a grunt of satisfaction from Conan, and you’re right there in the room with the mighty barbarian king, safe and invisible, enjoying his revenge as much as he did.
There are writers who are aware of the limitations of First Person and try to get around them. They will even surprise you by killing the character off in First Person (“And the room grew dark as my intestines filled my bloody hands”)—no, No, NO. It never works. Readers are too trained to read First Person as if the person were standing in the room and telling his story. How weird would it be for the man telling you what happened to him last week ending with, “And then I died.” You’d be like, “Ah, dude, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but you’re not dead.” It’s equally weird for a second or third person to push the one telling you his story aside and say, “And then this is what happened to me! There I was…”
Think of the greatest stories you know: The Last Supper, Monroe and Livingston telling President Jefferson about the Louisiana Purchase, The Battle of Midway—heck, even the birth of your first child—think of all those stories and tell me any of them would be better in a First Person narrative. Such amazing events demand the contributions of all characters to fully bring out their power. I don’t like First Person writing, and you should stop using it! When you tell your story, tell it from all angles. Don’t be lazy!
One of the most amusing things I’ve ever read is “If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord.” It’s a list of clichés from TV and film that we, the gullible and passive public, have been conditioned to accept when we see the antagonist. Here are a few of my favorites:
The artifact which is the source of my power will not be kept on the Mountain of Despair beyond the River of Fire guarded by the Dragons of Eternity. It will be in my safe-deposit box.
When I employ people as advisors, I will occasionally listen to their advice.
I will not imprison members of the same party in the same cell block, let alone the same cell. If they are important prisoners, I will keep the only key to the cell door on my person instead of handing out copies to every bottom-rung guard in the prison.
If my advisors ask “Why are you risking everything on such a mad scheme?”, I will not proceed until I have a response that satisfies them.
If an advisor says to me “My liege, he is but one man. What can one man possibly do?”, I will reply “This” and kill the advisor.
There are many more. Google it if you wish to read them all.
What is a Credible Perfect Villain?
When writing a villain, the value in not falling into a cliché trap cannot be understated. If your villain looks silly in the eyes of your reader, or his actions create a plot hole you can drive the Death Star through, you’ve lost. But an intelligent villain is but part of the equation.
Motivation is far more vital.
Why does your antagonist do what he (or she) does? What drives them? If your only answer is ‘power and wealth’, you need to do better. Why? Because most top villains are already powerful and wealthy, thus using more of the same as motivation is dull in this day and age. Readers today demand more.
I am going to commit blasphemy and criticize Tolkien. (Please understand, I don’t do this lightly. I owe Tolkien everything. He took fantasy out of fairy tales and Greek/Norse mythology and gave them life.) But, let’s face it, his villains sucked. (Except Gollum, who was awesome.) Sauron was an eye on a tower and Saruman was wizard who switched sides. What was their motivation? To simply rule the world? They were already powerful and timeless beings. Why did they want to rule the world? Let’s say Sauron got his ring back and won. He kills all humans and elves and now he rules a planet of…orcs? Yuck. Same for Saruman. Why try and help a slumbering god that will never share his power with you? What was his end game?
One of the Greatest Villain
Now, let’s compare that to arguably one of greatest villains ever written. Darth Vader. Forget the whole Anakin back story. Let’s just take him as he was in Episode 4 and 5. Vader was a loyal servant of the Empire who wanted to one day be emperor himself, but wouldn’t you agree there was always more to him? He was cold, calculating and menacing. He obviously felt nothing when Alderaan was destroyed. Why? Because that planet was one of thousands. Destroy one, you keep intergalactic civil war from happening. You maintain order. That, dear reader, is motivation. Kill a few billion to save hundreds of trillions from death and chaos.
The Emperor, on the other hand, is a punchline by today’s standards and the source of most of the items on the Evil Overlord list. Put all your eggs in one super-weapon basket. Invite the hero into your inner sanctum. Maniacal laughter. Employing legions of terror in matching uniforms that can shoot for shit. The list goes on. (Although, to be fair, I’d like to slap Luke upside the head for throwing his lightsaber away. I hope Ghost Yoda did that for me. But I digress.)
Back to Darth Vader. He is the hero of his own story. He believes he is making the galaxy a better place, for everyone. Can you say the same for Sauron? Not really. He was mostly a force of nature that just existed, from a time when readers accepted the two-dimensional villain. We never got to know Sauron and we weren’t really afraid of him. If Darth Vader, however, walks onto your ship, you better be wearing your brown trousers.
My Perfect Villain : Demos Azari
Let’s take a glance at my antagonist, Demos Azari. Look at this scene in The Penance of Pride when Aaron asks:
“Why? Why are you involved with these evil men?”
“Let me show you something.” Demos rose and walked over to the canvas Aaron had noticed before. “I painted this from the window in the tower above. What do you think?”
Aaron stepped closer and examined the worn artwork. It depicted the western half of Anderholm, but had several odd omissions. He pointed at places in the paining. “Where is the inner wall and observatory? And the university bell tower should be here. The forest line is all wrong.”
Demos stepped behind the easel and faced him. “That’s because I painted this a hundred and ninety years ago.”
Aaron looked at the painting again.
“Yes, that’s right. In nearly two centuries all that’s changed in Anderholm are a few buildings and a wall.”
“And what has that to do—”
Demos clenched in fist in front of Aaron’s face. “Open your eyes, historian. Humanity has stagnated. Not just in Anderholm, but everywhere. I challenge you to name one significant advance man has put forth in the last hundred years. Two hundred, even.”
Aaron searched his memories. There had been some advances in agriculture. Trade had expanded and become more efficient and profitable, but these were hardly significant. He shook his head.
Demos nodded. “Exactly. People cling to lies, working tirelessly to please false gods and waiting for death so they can frolic in the fields of Eriensym. The old ways have prevented men from seizing their true destiny, their true potential. The Innocenti alone have the strength to lead them to that truth.”
See what I mean?
The End justifies the Means for a Villain
Demos is the epitome of ‘the end justifies the means.’ He stabs a loyal apprentice in the belly and slits the throat of a young woman without hesitation, not because he enjoys killing, but because their deaths were necessary to achieve the goal of bringing humanity out of its stagnation. He gives no impression that he wants to rule. In fact, just the opposite; he wants to be the voice behind the throne.
When you write your villains, they must have motivation. You don’t need to psychoanalyze them or show their weaknesses—they don’t need to cry for the lost mother they could never save, or even be conflicted about their goals—but your reader must think, “If I was this person, would I do anything differently?” If the answer is “probably not” you’re well on your way to writing a great villain.
But still, please don’t have your villain employ a device with a digital countdown. If such a device is absolutely unavoidable, have him set it to activate when the counter reaches 117 and the hero is just putting his plan into operation. Also, your villain should never turn into a snake. It never helps.
One of the great balancing acts in writing is knowing when to use your narrator’s voice (the voice of the storyteller) and when to allow your character to tell the story through dialogue or interacting with the environment. In its simplest form, I can write ‘A tall man entered the room’ or I can write ‘He ducked to clear the doorway.’ Both say the same thing, only the second is generally preferred as it adds a visual element.
In first person writing, the voice of the narrator and the voice of the character are the same. ‘I drew my sword and charged the bandits. They would pay for their butchery with their lives!’ In the glory days when writers could get rich off their books, Third Person Omniscient was all the rage. “He drew his sword and charged the bandits. They heard him come and grabbed their weapons, wondering how he had gotten into their camp. He had disguised himself as one of them and had waited until the right moment to strike.’ There you, the reader, are in the point of view of all characters.
In recent years, the trend has gone with Third Person, single point of view. ‘He drew his sword and charged the bandits. He had waited in disguise until the moment was right, and now the moment was right!’ I’ve seldom liked First Person, both in writing and reading (for reasons I will cover in another blog post) and I view Omniscient the way a surgeon today would see the practice of using leeches.
Single Point of View has, and will always be, my thing—especially Deep POV.
Deep POV combines the best of Single Point of View and First Person and it’s a writing style that seeks to diminish the voice of the narrator and take the reader as close to the thoughts and feeling of the POV character as possible. ‘The disguise had worked perfectly. The bandits had allowed him inside their ranks. The fools! Now they would pay for their butchery. He drew his sword and leaped into them. Slash! One went down. Many remained. Good! Bandit blood made the grass grow.’
Shadyia dropped the dagger on the corpse of the man who had grabbed her hair. He could have it back. A drop of blood slid from her chin and stained her short gown as she put her foot on the shoulder of the dying wolfguard and slid free his half-drawn longsword. She swung the blade high over her head and faced Dunstan.
He slashed the air. “Yes, come to me, whore. I’ve killed eleven men in duels.”
The leather-wrapped hilt felt good in her hand. She smirked at Dunstan. No man walked into her home and battered her sisters. “I’ll need to catch up. I’ve only bagged two today.”
Laughter skipped among the women. Lord Dunstan snarled and lunged with an overhand strike, his sword a whistling blur. Their blades met with clang of steel that shocked her arms from wrists to elbows. Dunstan leaped back and thrust forward, a tactic she’d observed when he had killed the fat general. She knocked his blade aside and repeated the move so perfectly he nearly died from his own assault. He recovered and charged, swinging wildly. She sidestepped and smacked his bottom with the flat of her sword as he passed. The sisters laughed and even Amrita rewarded her with a grin.
Do you see?
As you can see, I didn’t write “she felt a drop of blood slid off her chin…” or “she watched as he recovered and swung wildly…” Deep POV requires that the writer not use “saw, watched, felt, wondered, believed” etc–words my editor calls “iffy words.” These things just are.
Here’s another example. In chapter 18, I have Aaron and Shadyia playing Larousse, a board game I invented. Originally, I had detailed the rules strictly in the voice of the narrator. The object of the game is this, to get there you have to do that. Etc. Boring. Deep POV allowed me to tell the rules in a way that was entertaining:
Aaron glared at the board. His previous antagonist had been the master of astronomy at the University in Sullust. The match had lasted nine hours, but eventually Aaron had trapped all four of the professor’s towers and kept all four of his own towers from being trapped. The professor had used every rule to return his captured pieces to the board, but in the end, Aaron’s strategy had prevailed.
Shadyia had won their first game in less than two hours. They were an hour into their second and already she had three of his towers trapped. He had just one of hers.
He pointed at himself. “Do you know how long I’ve been playing Larousse?”
“I know how long you’ve been losing Larousse.”
Oh, you arrogant—he picked up his general and trapped the second of Shadyia’s towers.
See? You, the cherished reader, are deep in Aaron’s thoughts, and therefore in the action. Do you like this writing style? Let me know in the comments. More to come.
Although I will gladly write about Shadyia Ascendant and how this breathtaking character came to be, I will also delve into the world of writing. Today, the topic is the first line of a novel.
Novel Writing Tips – The First Line
Ah, the first line of a novel. You have to hook your reader like a deep sea swordfish, reel them in and crack them over the head with your oar. If you can’t hook ‘em on the first line, your book is doomed. Your years of hard work, fortune spent on copy editors and dreams of movie rights, a chateau in Nice, France, and wearing sunglasses all the time as paparazzi blind you with their flash cameras dashed—crushed!—on the jagged rocks of mediocrity. Doomed! Doooooooooooooooooooomed. (No pressure.)
But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun with this!
Here are the winners of the Bulwer-Lytton contest, (aka “It Was a dark and Stormy Night” Contest) run by the English Department of San Jose State University, wherein one writes only the first line of a bad novel. The goal of this contest is to write the best BAD opening sentence for a novel.
Winners in reverse:
As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the echo chamber, he would never hear the end of it.
Just beyond the Narrows , the river widens.
With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description.
Andre, a simple peasant, had only one thing on his mind as he crept along the East wall: “Andre creep… Andre creep…Andre creep.”
Stanislaus Smedley, a man always on the cutting edge of narcissism, was about to give his body and soul to a back alley sex-change surgeon to become the woman he loved.
Although Sarah had an abnormal fear of mice, it did not keep her from eking out a living at a local pet store.
Stanley looked quite bored and somewhat detached, but then penguins often do.
Like an over-ripe beefsteak tomato rimmed with cottage cheese, the corpulent remains of Santa Claus lay dead on the hotel floor.
Mike Hardware was the kind of private eye who didn’t know the meaning of the word “fear”‘; a man who could laugh in the face of danger and spit in the eye of death — in short, a moron with suicidal tendencies.
AND THE WINNER IS…
The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the frog’s deception, screaming madly, “You lied!”
Nothing grabs attention like ringing bells. I point this out not to self-congratulate (well, a little), but as a spot of advice to new writers. To write a good opening hook, get the reader to subconsciously ask a question. Why were the bells ringing? It may not be as classic as “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” or “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” but the ringing bells puts the reader into the action right away and gets them to ask a question.
Look at this awesome first line from Gunslinger, the first book Stephen King’s Dark Tower series:
The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.
Excellent! Right away, you are in the action and you have questions. Why was the man in black fleeing? Why was the gun slinger following? Who wears black in the desert?
There is also a list of “Don’ts” when writing that vital first line, but I’ve taken enough of your time. Hope you enjoyed the funny list.